The Clientele's Alasdair MacLean draws inspiration from hangovers and accidental acid trips
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Despite releasing five albums of sublime psychedelic folk pop, The Clientele remains painfully under-appreciated, especially in its native Britain. Given singer-guitarist Alasdair MacLean's very public speculations about the demise of the band, audiences seem to be running out of time to appreciate the quartet while it is still active. Where else can one find a band that can seamlessly blend influences from both surrealist literature and the prefabricated pop of The Monkees? Prior to his band's March 1 performance at the Mohawk, MacLean spoke with The A.V. Club about hangovers, accidental acid trips, and the fact that last year's Bonfires On The Heath could very well mark the end of The Clientele.
The A.V. Club: You're working on writing and illustrating a comic book. What will it be about?
Alasdair MacLean: I haven't done it yet. That was the plan for the last month, which has gone up in smoke. I never got around to it, but I'll definitely be doing it when I get back from tour. The plan was for it to illustrate many different poems from surrealist authors and maybe some Clientele lyrics as well. It wasn't going to be a normal narrative comic. It's going to be illustrations with lines of poetry.
AVC: You tend to draw a lot of inspiration from art and literature. Were there any particular works that inspired the new album?
AM: A lot of art, actually. There was a Cuban-born artist named Ana Mendieta who lived in New York and made these very ephemeral pieces of land art where she'd take these tree branches, burn them, and then photograph the flames. The works had a very eerie quality and a connection to land and to nature which were definitely a big influence on writing the songs on the last record.
AVC: In interviews you've speculated that 2009's Bonfires On The Heath could very well be the last Clientele album. Is that still the case?
AM: Yeah, I think so. I suppose that I haven't really meant it to be public speculation but I've just been honest about it. We're in a situation now where we've got five long-play records of sort of eerie psychedelic pop music. I don't think that we can make another one. That's really my position on it. If we were to do a film soundtrack or something else where I could take the rest of the band with me. I really don't think bands should make more than five records anyway. In fact, five is one too many. [Laughs.] We'll have to see how it pans out.
AVC: When you mention film soundtracks, are there any directors you're hoping to work with?
AM: Yeah, any director. Or every director. [Laughs.]
AVC: In regards to admiring their work, are there any particular directors you hope would commission you?
AM: I always give such stupid answers when I'm asked that question. I always say, like, [Michelangelo] Antonioni or Orson Welles. People who are dead. I'd love to do a Michael Haneke film but I don't know if we could descend to that level of bleakness in our music. We could do a good job on any director's film, that's my pitch.
AVC: You've described the mood of the latest record as "spooky." Was there anything going on in your life that contributed to that?
AM: Yeah, it came from—and this is so cliched and so stupid—but it came from a trip on LSD that I accidentally took. It wasn't the trip itself, which was full of ridiculous things like the usual hallucinations, but it was the afterglow of it, which seemed to last three or four months. It was quite profound for me because I was back in London walking around places like Hampstead Heath just at the very height of summer, and at the time I was feeling very strange, eerie sensations coming from nature. I almost had the paranoid feeling that it was looking back into me as I was looking at it and just getting the chills from it for about three or four months. That's the time period when those songs were written. I was listening to sort of spooky old folk music at the same time. Also, it's from going running through the woods early in the morning—and when you run you start to lose track of who you are and of yourself and your personality dissolves a bit. You find yourself inhabiting the spaces around you in an imaginary way, if that doesn't sound too pretentious.
AVC: What made the dose of LSD accidental?
AM: It got put in my drink by somebody who decided that I needed to experience a really strong dose, despite me assuring him that I had already tried it and had moved on. He decided I needed one that would last four days. I was on tour at the time and it made the next three nights pretty interesting. We played at the Sonar Festival in Barcelona and a couple shows in Madrid and I can remember them but I remember just thinking everything was out of time. They very well could have been the best shows we've ever played, but I thought, surely I was out of time with everyone else and it was horrible.
AVC: You once mentioned that you like writing songs while recovering from hangovers. What is it about being hungover that aids the creative process?
AM: I think its the same dissolving of the ego. I find that my brain chemistry, when I'm hungover, is that I'm just in a daze. When you're in a daze—whether it's from running or a hangover or whatever else—I think that ideas from your subconscious can slip through more easily. The way that I write songs, for what its worth, when I'm playing music, if it's good music it will bring images forward into my mind and then I'll write down what the images are and that becomes the lyrics. I think that process is just easier if the superego has just gone away in disgust for the day.
AVC: Why do you think The Clientele has never quite broken through to the British audience?
AM: I honestly don't know. It's very irritating. I can never really be confident as an artist or a writer until that happens. I always feel like a fraud until people in Britain accept what we do. Having said that, this last record has been much more widely and happily received in Britain than anything we've done before. The national papers have started to write about The Clientele and the BBC has started to write about us. Hopefully, its a process that will happen in retrospect. They'll do their stupid thing about how we're this great lost band that was ignored for 10 years and I'll be grinding my teeth while they do it but it's better than being confined to oblivion and completely forgotten. I think it's because we've been against all the trends. We formed when we were 15 years old in 1990 and our musical DNA was all there from that moment on. So, we predate Nirvana, never mind Oasis. We predate grunge. So, all the bands that have caught on in Britain are post-Oasis and post-Pulp and all that and we formed before all that. In some ways, we're still stuck in 1989. Maybe we're just like Hitler where we can't move forward from a simple set of beliefs. [Laughs.]